Title: The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
Author: Benjamin Wallace
Release Date: May 13, 2008
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the dust jacket:
It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.
In 1985, at a heated auction by Christie’s of London, a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux—one of a cache of bottles unearthed in a bricked-up Paris cellar and supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—went for $156,000 to a member of the Forbes family. The discoverer of the bottle was pop-band manager turned wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who had a knack for finding extremely old and exquisite wines. But rumors about the bottle soon arose. Why wouldn’t Rodenstock reveal the exact location where it had been found? Was it part of a smuggled Nazi hoard? Or did his reticence conceal an even darker secret?
Pursuing the story from Monticello to London to Zurich to Munich and beyond, Benjamin Wallace also offers a mesmerizing history of wine, complete with vivid accounts of subterranean European laboratories where old vintages are dated and of Jefferson’s colorful, wine-soaked days in France, where he literally drank up the culture.
If the summary above seems choppy, that’s because I removed some paragraphs from it. I don’t enjoy reading summaries that are longer than a chapter of the book! Ok, that might be exaggerating, but I appreciate minimal information about the contents of a book before picking it up – isn’t that the point of actually reading the book, to figure out what the book is about?
The Billionaire’s Vinegar piqued my interest because though I enjoy the occasional glass of wine, I don’t know much about it. Therefore, the idea of a mystery behind a bottle of wine, concerning Thomas Jefferson no less, sounded really intriguing and I decided I definitely wanted to read this book.
Let me be clear: if you aren’t at all interested in wine, you probably won’t like this book. It’s about the history of wine and wine collecting, framed through the mystery of the questionable provenance of this bottle of wine. That being said though, I really enjoyed The Billionaire’s Vinegar. I laughed at the absurdities of rich wine collectors, was surprised at the gall of some of the characters in the book, and was enthralled by the mystery of where this bottle of wine really came from. I also found details such as the process of wine re-corking and the presence of radiation in wine after the first atomic bomb test incredibly interesting.
The mystery itself isn’t actually that hard to figure out – it becomes pretty clear about halfway through the book. But still, there are those questions of lingering doubt. In the end, The Billionaire’s Vinegar is more of a narrative than a mystery, a chronicle of what occurred as a result of this bottle of wine appearing at auction. It’s very well written and never stops being a fascinating read.
The ending is somewhat unsatisfying, but I’ve found in non-fiction narratives, that is often the case. Still, The Billionaire’s Vinegar is a very enjoyable read that I definitely recommend to non-fiction lovers and people who are interested in wine. If you are interested in the book but are hesitant about non-fiction, take the book slow, like I did – 50 pages at a time. The Billionaire’s Vinegar definitely kept my interest and I hope it will keep yours as well!